DPG would like to thank Ikelite for supplying a pair of Ikelite DS230 strobes, as well as the Ikelite 200DLM housing for the Canon EOS R7, and various accessories used in this review. DPG would also like to thank Pura Vida Divers for use of their dive operation.
As an underwater photographer, your lighting equipment is arguably the most important part of your rig. You can have a top-notch camera, but if your lighting tools aren’t up to the task, all those high-end megapixels will be wasted. Savvy shooters understand that getting the best possible strobes they can afford will ultimate translate to better pictures.
One company that knows a thing or two about what constitutes a good strobe is Ikelite: It’s been more than six decades since “Ike’s lights” began developing their reputation for quality and reliability. Since 1962, when the name “Ikelite” was trademarked, the U.S. company—which still makes all its products in America—has manufactured some of the most popular and most competitively priced strobes.
For many years, Ikelite has generally offered two strobe models distinguished mainly by output power but also by the type of flashtube: a less-powerful model with a rectangular flashtube (the most recent being the 50-watt-second DS51 II) and a more-powerful model boasting a circular flashtube (such as the current 160Ws DS160 II)—the latter circular type generally considered to be superior in terms of the evenness of the beam produced. But Ikelite raised the stakes considerably when the company announced a new top-end strobe in April 2022, the DS230, again packing a circular flashtube but with a formidable 213Ws of power—33% more than that of their previous flagship strobe.
It is this impressive-sounding strobe that I have been fortunate enough to test thoroughly over the last couple of months. Having only ever used DS51s in the past, I was not sure what to expect from the DS230s, but I was keen to see whether these pro-level flashes could be a viable alternative to my aging (and discontinued) Sea&Sea YS-250s as my main workhorse strobes. From sharks in blue water, to reefs, to freshwater springs, to muck diving, I have put the DS230s through their paces with lots of different subject matter. The humble flashgun may seem to be performing a straightforward function, but I have discovered that not all strobes are created equal…
A green turtle returning to the reef after catching a quick breath: Even shooting up into midday light, the DS230s were easily able to put enough light on the subject without needing to crank the power to 100% (Canon EOS R7, Ikelite housing, Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/14, 1/250s, ISO 100)
The DS230’s soft, wide beam allows for great close-focus wide-angle images without hotspots or distracting shadows on the front of subjects like this bandtail searobin (Canon EOS R7, Ikelite housing, Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/11, 1/10s, ISO 100)
1. Flexible, Reliable Setup and Operation
The first thing you will realize about the DS230 is that, despite its power, it isn’t big. In fact, it’s slightly smaller than previous flagship strobes from Ikelite, and it is substantially smaller than my Sea&Sea YS-250. It features a slightly domed face, which presumably allows for better beam spread from the circular xenon flashtube.
The second thing you may notice about the DS230—indeed, any Ikelite strobe—is the bulkhead. It’s electrical, which means you get a durable, 100%-reliable connection between housing and strobe, but with a few more O-rings to take care of. The sync cord, which is a separate purchase, will depend on whether you’re using one strobe or two. I got the Y-shaped Dual Sync Cord, which plugs into the housing and then splits into two for plugging into each strobe. While no photographer interested in the pro-level DS230 will ever only purchase a single strobe, if you did only have one, you’d hook it up via the Single Sync Cord.
If you have an Ikelite housing, and you shoot your strobes in manual mode, as many photographers do, you’re now ready to start shooting. If you like to have the option of automatic strobe exposure, all you need to do is add a TTL converter, which is available in different versions for different camera brands. Ikelite’s converter is added between the housing and the sync cord, i.e., outside, not inside, the housing, which has the important benefit of allowing on-the-fly switching between TTL and manual modes. Ingeniously, an Ikelite TTL converter gets its power from the strobe, so your days of changing fiddly coin batteries are over.
The full Ikelite test rig: Canon EOS R7, Ikelite 200DLM housing for the Canon EOS R7, Ikelite tray and dual handles, dual Ikelite wide angle ball arms, Ikelite dual sync cord, and dual Ikelite DS230 strobes
If you have a non-Ikelite housing, you can still benefit from TTL exposure with the DS230s. Most Nauticam, Isotta, and other manufacturers’ housings can be updated with an Ikelite-style bulkhead now available with either M14 or M16 threads. These bulkheads are compatible with Ikelite DS Link TTL converters for any camera brand. Alternatively, Ikelite TTL converters with Nikonos-type plugs are available for Nikon, Olympus, OM System, and Panasonic cameras.
For a housing with fiber optic connections, you’ll just need to add an Ikelite Fiber Optic Converter to each strobe, though keep in mind you’ll only be able to use the strobes in manual mode. I used the DS230s with the Ikelite housing for the Canon EOS R7 (i.e., via electronic sync) as well as with the AOI housing for the OM System OM-1 via fiber optic cables, and the strobes functioned flawlessly. I had absolutely no reliability issues with the DS230s regardless of how they were triggered. For testing TTL, I used the Ikelite DL5 DS Link Canon TTL converter.
- Maximum power: 213 Ws
- Beam angle: 120º without diffuser
- Color temperature: 5000K
- Recycle time: 0.1 to 1.2 seconds (full power)
- LED modeling light: 205 lumens
- Flashes per charge (full power): 300
- Battery: 7.2V 3300mAh NiMH rechargeable
- Depth rating: 330 feet (100 meters)
- Dimensions (D x L): 3.6" x 7" (91mm x 179mm)
- Weight (with battery): 2.7lbs (1243g)
- Included: Battery pack, charger, 1" ball mount
Clockwise from top left: DS230 strobe with fiber optic converter attached; control panel; head (R) and battery pack (L); close-up of fiber optic converter
The DS230 has two big control dials on the side of the strobe body, and thanks to a new chunkier design, these knobs are easy to grip and twist, even with gloves on. Each dial has a hard stop, and you can’t accidentally bump the strobe to different settings unless you really went out of your way. The rear dial is for turning the strobe on and off, and there’s a slide lock to prevent you from accidentally switching the unit on when it’s not being used. The front dial allows you to change the output in 10 half-stop increments, with hard clicks at each stop, or alternatively, switch to TTL mode.
The strobe has a twist-and-lock mechanism to attach the battery pack to the strobe head. The dedicated battery packs are something I greatly appreciate. Not only did I not have to deal with pesky AA batteries, but the large capacity battery pack lasts essentially forever. While the strobe is rated at 300 shots at full power, at the power settings I used—half power or less most of the time—I got thousands of shots per charge and really never worried at all about battery life. For those concerned, however, the strobe does feature battery level indicator lights on the side of the body.
It’s worth noting that Ikelite actually makes two flavors of DS230: the version with modeling light reviewed here and a hybrid version with a built-in 2,500-lumen video light. The latter, which will be available soon, is one of the few strobes on the market that features a continuous light strong enough to function acceptably for many video scenarios. Alternatively, for those of us who forget our focus lights on night dives, the integrated LED light could provide some handy assistance!
Portrait of a convict cichlid: Ikelite’s Fiber Optic Converters allow the DS230s to work perfectly with non-Ikelite housings that have fiber optic ports (OM System OM-1, Olympus 60mm f/2.8 Macro, AOI UH-OM1 housing, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230, 2x Ikelite Fiber Optic Converters, f/3.2, 1/30s, ISO 80)
Florida gar motion blur: A lot of very reflective subjects were photographed for this review and the DS230s produced not a single hotspot (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye, AOI UH-OM1 housing, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230, 2x Ikelite Fiber Optic Converters, f/13, 1/3s, ISO 80)
2. More Power Than Needed (That’s a Good Thing)
It’s important to appreciate that as a strobe’s power increases relative to its maximum power, generally the light gets harsher and less pleasing. The higher the output of the strobe overall, the lower the proportion of full power you need to use—meaning more pleasing light while getting more light. Because the DS230s are so powerful, you don’t have to crank them up, for a given situation, nearly as much as you do other strobes.
The DS230 has a maximum rated output power of 213Ws. That’s one-third more than the 160Ws from the already-powerful DS161 II. If these numbers seem unfamilar, that’s because people often obsess about guide number (GN) as an indicator of flash power. The problem is that the guide number is notoriously unreliable, as it is measured differently by different manufacturers. Watt-seconds is a far more reliable measurement of strobe power. While Ikelite doesn’t specify a GN for the DS230, the strobe is more powerful than my now-discontinued Sea&Sea YS-250, which has a quoted guide number of 32. The DS230 is also much more powerful than the Retra Flash PRO (150Ws) or the Seacam Seaflash 160 Digital (160Ws).
Big reef scenes? No problem! The light quality, power, and beam spread of the DS230 make it the perfect tool to show off large swaths of the underwater realm (Canon EOS R7, Ikelite housing, Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/10, 1/30s, ISO 100)
Although this lemon shark was right on the dome, the DS230s still lit the subject beautifully, with no distracting shadows in the middle of the frame or hotspots on the edges (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye, AOI UH-OM1 housing, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230, 2x Ikelite Fiber Optic Converters, f/14, 1/8s, ISO 80)
The other benefit of a powerful strobe is the faster recycle times you get because you’re able to shoot at lower power settings. At full power, the DS230’s recycle time is 1.2 seconds, which is already impressively quick. But at the power settings you typically need—I nearly always set the DS230 to half power or less—the strobe recycles just about instantaneously. Thus, when shooting bursts, as the recycle time is so fast, the DS230s had no problem at all keeping up with high frame rates. With the strobes set to half power, I could comfortably shoot fast-moving sharks at 5fps or 6fps.
The DS230s performed even in extreme tests. Shooting 10fps bursts at half power, the strobes managed to expose nearly every frame perfectly—only a single frame out of 10 was underexposed. This performance is sure to impress photographers who love capturing fast action and are used to being restricted to shooting in ambient light only.
Five sharks per second: Shooting at half power, the DS230s could comfortably keep up with a burst speed of 5fps, with every frame perfectly exposed (Canon EOS R7, Ikelite housing, Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/10, 1/250s, ISO 100)
3. Beautiful Light at Just the Right Temperature
The “quality” of the light is perhaps the most important aspect of a strobe’s performance, especially a powerful strobe built for wide-angle shooting. The DS230’s circular flash tube delivers a very wide, exceptionally soft, even beam with a pleasing light fall-off at the edges. The strobe has a color temperature of 5000K, which I found gave natural-looking colors to subjects while preserving the beautiful rich blues of the available light.
Without a diffuser, the beam is 120 degrees, and because the light quality is so appealing, you don’t need to attach diffusers (or be concerned about the loss of light that comes with using them). A bane of underwater photographers shooting with strobes is reflective fish, but I found the DS230’s soft, even beam—without the use of diffusers—reduced the chances of hotspots or glare, even on reflective subjects like largemouth bass.
As already mentioned, one of the benefits of a high-powered strobe is that you can shoot at lower power settings for more pleasing light quality but still have plenty of light output. For example, if you shoot the DS230 at 100Ws—around half its maximum output—the light you get will be considerably nicer looking than what you get from shooting a strobe that has a maximum output of 100Ws and shooting it at full power.
With the DS230s, even shiny, reflective fish like this largemouth bass have no hotspots or blown-out highlights (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye, AOI UH-OM1 housing, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230, 2x Ikelite Fiber Optic Converters, f/10, 1/15s, ISO 100)
The DS230s produce a very natural looking light, giving this large barrel sponge a very pleasing warmth (Canon EOS R7, Ikelite housing, Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/10, 1/250s, ISO 200)
4. Accurate Automatic Strobe Exposure in Most Situations
For many serious hobbyists and pros interested in a high-quality strobe like the DS230, the value of automatic strobe exposure won’t be much of a debate: They’ve been adjusting their strobe power manually for years and will continue to do so. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course—it’s my personal preference, too—but many “old-school” underwater photographers are simply unaware of just how good modern TTL systems can be.
Ikelite’s implementation is a case in point. In the majority of situations, Ikelite’s TTL strobe system nails exposure perfectly, whether you’re shooting macro or wide angle—and the freedom it gives you can become quite addictive! For a seasoned manual shooter, it takes some getting used to, but not having to worry about adjusting strobe power does allow you to concentrate on composition, and you can work surprisingly quickly.
Naturally, the system isn’t infallible, and it can be fooled when shooting wide angle if the light changes quickly or if your subject goes from backlight to front light or light to shade. But with Ikelite’s TTL converter situated outside the housing and the ability to toggle between TTL and manual at the touch of a button, you can easily switch to manual for any situation that requires more control.
Orangespotted shrimpgobies like this one peeking out of its burrow are normally incredibly shy and don't allow for multiple frames once your flash has gone off. Not to worry! The TTL capabilities of the DS230s made this image a breeze, as exposure was nailed first time (Canon EOS R7, Canon RF 100mm Macro, Ikelite housing, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/4, 1/250s, ISO 100)
A butter hamlet sheltering under some sponge growth: Wide angle can often be a challenge for TTL systems, but the DS230s handled this situation well in very murky conditions (Canon EOS R7, Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye, Ikelite housing, 2x Ikelite DS230, f/10, 1/10s, ISO 100)
5. Final Thoughts
Ikelite’s flagship flash has quickly become my favorite strobe, especially for wide angle. The DS230s are built to withstand heavy use, impressively powerful despite their compact size, recycle incredibly quickly, and most importantly, produce a fantastic quality of the light. The very long-lasting battery is a welcome bonus.
The strobe produces a beautifully soft and even beam that gave excellent results for the subjects I shoot every day, including sharks, close focus wide angle, and reflective freshwater fish. I greatly preferred the DS230s to my Sea&Sea YS-250s (which is saying a lot), and it’s easy for me to imagine them becoming my main workhorse strobes.
There’s no doubt that investing in a pair of DS230s requires parting with some serious cash, but it you view your strobes as an important component of your rig—which you really should—the price of these strobes is justified. Ikelite’s Fiber Optic Converters open up the DS230s (and all the company’s DS-series strobes) to those that prefer fiber optic triggering, but keep in mind that these are a separate purchase that add to the overall cost. If you’re on the fence about electrical versus fiber optic flash sync, the rock solid connection between Ikelite’s housing and strobes may help to sway your decision.
For a suitably atmospheric shot, the DS230s were set to a very low power to put just a touch of light on this lemon shark, photographed early in the morning (OM System OM-1, Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye, AOI UH-OM1 housing, AOI 4-inch dome, 2x Ikelite DS230, 2x Ikelite Fiber Optic Converters, f/11, 1/250s, ISO 80)
About the Reviewer: Matthew Sullivan is a Florida-based wildlife photographer who has been diving since he was 10 years old. He has traveled extensively, visiting well-known dive destinations such as Guadalupe Island, Indonesia and the Philippines, but he also likes to dive closer to home in the Pacific Northwest. When not taking pictures underwater, he can be found trekking mountains, or exploring national parks and rainforests in search of new adventures and wildlife encounters.
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